What are micronutrients?
Vitamins, minerals, trace elements & other nutrients
Nutrients are divided into two groups: micronutrients and macronutrients. By definition, micronutrients are components of food that do not give the body energy but are still essential to life due to their function and various processes in the body.1 Micronutrients include vitamins, minerals and trace elements in addition to secondary plant metabolites, amino acids and essential fatty acids.
Micronutrients and macronutrients: What is the difference?
The main difference between macro- and micronutrients is that the body needs macronutrients in relatively large amounts, while its micronutrient requirements are significantly lower. (https://mynutrition.wsu.edu/nutrition-basics)) Macronutrients are responsible for supplying the body with energy. This means that our body can break down macronutrients and convert them into energy. These include fats, proteins and carbohydrates. Although micronutrients are required in much lower quantities than macronutrients, they can still be important for many bodily functions. As such it’s important to find a balance of both and to supply your body with all essential nutrients through a balanced diet.
What are the different micronutrients and what functions do they support in the body?
Micronutrients can be divided into different groups: minerals, trace elements and vitamins. All these nutrients have different important functions in the body: some micronutrients support the immune system, while other vital substances are important for our metabolism.
Our body is constantly working to sustain, regenerate and renew cells, muscles, skin, bones, blood and nerves. Alongside macronutrients, it’s also dependent on the intake of micronutrients to ensure these processes work as they should, because it can’t produce all these substances in the required amounts by itself.
Minerals are a type of inorganic nutrient, which means that they cannot be broken down, but nonetheless play an important role in the maintenance of the body structure, nerves and muscles as well as in the regulation of fluid. Essential minerals include calcium, magnesium, potassium and sodium. They’re important for the entire body and support bone development, teeth and the metabolism, among other things.
About 99% of the body’s own calcium is stored in bones and teeth. The remaining one percent is found in the blood, muscles and tissue.2 That’s why consuming enough calcium in your diet is important for the maintenance of normal bones and teeth. In children, calcium is required for normal growth and normal bone development, but it’s not just growing children who should pay attention to a sufficient intake of calcium in the diet. Important micronutrients such as calcium are vital for all age groups.
Calcium is not only important for our bones and teeth, but also contributes to normal muscle function, the normal function of digestive enzymes and normal metabolism.
Anyone who has suffered a muscle cramp while playing sport or working out is sure to remember the recommendation that magnesium can help with frequently occurring cramps. The reason? Magnesium can contribute to normal muscle function. This nutrient is not only important for our muscles though — magnesium also supports the maintenance of normal bones and teeth.
Its benefits don’t end there. Magnesium plays a role in the cell division process and is one of the micronutrients that support various cell reactions.
Magnesium also contributes to normal energy metabolism. More specifically, it supports the electrolyte balance and normal protein synthesis. Magnesium also contributes to normal nervous system function and to reducing tiredness and fatigue.
Potassium also assumes an important role in micronutrient distribution. Its main function is the transfer of electrical impulses to nerves and muscles. In doing this, potassium not only contributes to normal nervous system function, but also supports normal muscle function and helps maintain normal blood pressure. As such, signs of having a potassium deficiency can include a high heart rate and muscle weakness.3
Sodium is an essential mineral that is contained in almost all foods. This is because natural micronutrients like sodium either occur naturally or are added in the form of salt in almost all food sources. Sodium is one of the body’s most important electrolytes, as it balances fluid levels throughout the body. Additionally, sodium intake is important for the regulation of acid-base levels and blood pressure.4
Trace elements are a subgroup of minerals. Although the body has a comparatively small trace element requirement,5 these micronutrients are still of critical importance for the entire body. Major trace elements include iron, zinc, iodine, selenium and chromium.
As a member of the micronutrient group, iron is one of the essential minerals. Iron contributes to the normal formation of red blood cells and hemoglobin. Alongside its part in blood formation, this mineral’s key functions for our body also include the transportation and storage of oxygen.6 This is because iron also supports normal oxygen transport through the body.
Furthermore, iron is one of the micronutrients that support the immune system by contributing to its normal function. Sufficient iron intake also contributes to normal cognitive function and a reduction of tiredness and fatigue.
As mentioned above, Zinc is one of the essential trace elements. This means that it is essential to human life but can’t be produced by the body itself or stored in the body either. As such, it is a micronutrient that must be supplied via food.
Zinc intake is so important because it is a trace element that is involved in many bodily reactions. For instance, zinc contributes to normal acid-base metabolism, normal carbohydrate metabolism and normal protein synthesis. Furthermore, zinc intake can also have a positive effect on our looks, because zinc supports the maintenance of normal skin, hair and nails.
Just like zinc, iodine is another essential trace element. Iodine must be consumed regularly via food, because the body cannot produce it itself. Iodine is primarily important for the thyroid, because it contributes to the normal production of thyroid hormones and normal thyroid function. It also supports normal cognitive function and normal nervous system function.
Selenium is an essential trace element that is involved in numerous bodily reactions, meaning it has an important function for the entire body. Selenium helps protect cells against oxidative stress and free radicals and also contributes to normal immune system function. Furthermore, selenium, together with zinc, helps maintain normal skin, hair and nails.
Chromium is an essential trace element within the group of micronutrients that support normal macronutrient metabolism. Additionally, it plays an important role for blood sugar by helping maintain normal blood sugar levels.
Vitamins are also micronutrients and are, by definition, organic substances that support the regulation of various bodily processes.7 Many vitamins are essential, which means they are vital for human life. Among other things, they can support cell development and help the immune system with defense and immune response. Vitamins are divided into fat- and water-soluble vitamins. Fat-soluble vitamins include vitamins A, D, E and K. Water-soluble vitamins include B vitamins and vitamin C. The two groups primarily differ in the fact that fat-soluble vitamins can be stored by the body, whereas water-soluble vitamins are not generally stored by the body. As such, making sure your diet allows a continuous supply of these vitamins to your body is important. The individual groups of vitamins play a part in various bodily processes.
Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin and contributes to the maintenance of normal skin, among other things. Vitamin A also influences eyesight and eye health, because vitamin A helps to maintain normal vision and normal mucous membranes. Furthermore, vitamin A is one of the micronutrients that strengthen the immune system and contribute to its normal function.
B vitamins, such as vitamin B2 (riboflavin), vitamin B6 (pyridoxine) and vitamin B12 (cobalamin), are also important micronutrients that support the body with various metabolic processes.
- (riboflavin) contributes to normal energy metabolism, normal nervous system function and the maintenance of normal vision.
- (pyridoxine) contributes to normal protein and glycogen metabolism, the normal formation of red blood cells and the normal function of the immune system.
- (cobalamin) contributes to the normal formation of red blood cells and plays a role in the process of cell division. Additionally, vitamin B12 supports normal nervous system function.
The special thing about B12: it can be stored by the body over a period of several years.8
Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) is an important vitamin for the entire body, especially for the immune system. This is because vitamin C helps maintain normal immune system function during and after intensive physical exertion and helps protect cells against oxidative stress. Alongside its effect on the immune system, vitamin C is also required for the development of connective tissue by aiding the formation of collagen. Vitamin C also contributes to normal collagen formation for the normal function of blood vessels, normal cartilage function and normal function of the gums. Furthermore, vitamin C increases the absorption of iron by improving the utilization of iron from plant sources.9
Vitamin D has a special role amongst all the micronutrients and vitamins, because it can be produced by the body itself from existing precursors. The body’s own vitamin D formation process occurs when the skin is exposed to sunlight. Vitamin D contributes to normal absorption and utilization of calcium and phosphorus as well as the maintenance of normal bones. In addition, vitamin D contributes to maintaining normal muscle function and normal immune system function.
Vitamins E and K
Vitamin E, also known as tocopherol, helps protect cells from oxidative stress. Vitamin K, on the other hand, contributes to normal blood clotting and the maintenance of normal bones.
Which foods contain micronutrients?
If you would like to integrate micronutrients into your diet, you don’t have to be picky. Micronutrients are found both in animal products and fish and meat alike, but are also abundant in various types of fruits and vegetables. As such, flexitarians, vegetarians or vegans can ensure they are getting enough nutrients, just like people who eat meat.
Animal foods such as fish, meat and eggs are important sources of micronutrients.
- Eating meat and sausages ensures an adequate intake of zinc, iron and B vitamins.10
- Offal such as liver is not usually on most people’s menus, but is rich in vitamin A and vitamin K.11
- Fish and seafood are valuable sources of vitamins and trace elements. Salmon, herring and mackerel are good sources of vitamin D12 and sodium,4 for example.
- Marine animals and plants can also contain iodine as a natural micronutrient. As such, iodine can be included in the diet through fish, such as cod and tuna, seaweed and prawns. But dairy products can also contain iodine.13
Fruit and vegetables
Fresh fruit and vegetables are irreplaceable when it comes to a healthy diet and supply the body with valuable micronutrients and numerous vital substances. Fruit and vegetables are an especially healthy dietary choice when it comes to supplying the body with important micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals and getting enough nutrients and plant metabolites:
- The body obtains valuable micronutrients for the immune system in the form of vitamin C from consuming vegetables such as peppers, broccoli, potatoes and tomatoes and fruits such as kiwis and strawberries.14
- You can get vitamin A from pumpkin, broccoli and carrots or apricots and mangoes.15
- Calcium is mainly found in green vegetables, such as broccoli, kale and Chinese cabbage.16
- Bananas are a particularly valuable source of potassium, but other fruits such as dried apricots, plums and raisins also contain this mineral. Potatoes, spinach, tomatoes and broccoli are the main sources of potassium in vegetables.17
Mushrooms are a good choice if you want to increase the micronutrient intake in your diet. Button mushrooms in particular are full of vitamins and minerals. Mushrooms are a key source of valuable B vitamins, but also essential minerals such as selenium.18
How does the body absorb micronutrients?
Many natural micronutrients are found in our food and there are a couple of points to look out for when looking at your nutrient intake. To achieve optimal micronutrient distribution across your diet, it is worth focusing on high-quality products. In general, to ensure sufficient micronutrient supply, you should pay attention to proper food storage conditions and preparation methods. For instance, many vitamins can be destroyed by heat. As such, in order to naturally improve health, it can make sense to supplement your diet with raw food.
Preparation is also important when it comes to minerals. Although they are often resistant to heat, they can be reduced by cooking for too long. By eating foods that are as unprocessed as possible, you can ensure you get sufficient micronutrients.
Give your body enough minerals, vitamins and trace elements
When it comes to micronutrients, as with all foods: healthy eating means variety. By eating a balanced diet, you can ensure a balanced distribution of macro- and micronutrients in your body. Fresh fruit and vegetables should always have a permanent place on the menu. This ensures your body is supplied with important vitamins and vital substances to promote your health and support your immune system. Adding animal and dairy products in appropriate quantities can help round off your mineral and trace element intake.
To sum up, we can say that you can usually avoid a micronutrient deficiency by eating a varied diet with fresh, high-quality foods. Because if the body gets all important micronutrients, it has a positive effect on numerous bodily processes as well as the metabolism.